Working with Max is not easy
Does anyone find it difficult to interface with Max? Maybe I’m just
approaching it wrong or something, maybe just a lack of decent ideas.
I’ve been working with Max for a few years and it’s not that I don’t
know how to use it but it’s like whenever I sit down to create
something, it ends up not working the way I imagined it or I just lose
the inspiration I had at the start. It feels hard to interface with. I
just end up creating stuff that isn’t very useful and repetitive and
trite. I have some good ideas and I know how I can create them but
being an artist ius difficult at tims so I thought I’d see how other
people do it. By the way, this is not a question where I need a "you
just need to read the manual more" type of answer, it’s more of an
I don’t know, these could just be lame feelings and maybe I’m not
technical enough but I’d love to hear how other people create usable
tools in Max and how they approach it.
Experimental electronic. I need to be able to get to the point of
creating the tool and THEN using it which is the fun part. I need the
well, max takes times to really be able to just start from scratch and
create something mindblowing.
I got used to max by creating patch thru systems, where I could route, say a
MIDI signal to do something odd…
Then as I got more used to the methods, I started trying to create larger
more complex patches that I could actually perform with.
Either way, the key is having a goal, and putting the bigger picture
together with smaller parts, and smaller meaning compartmentalizing things.
I hear you, it can be pointless, when you sit down with not much of a goal
in mind, or no way of knowing how to get there.
Best advice is, decide what you want to build, figure out how you can break
it down (if you want a bunch of specialized sample-players, you can just
build one, and modify instances of it), then try putting something small
together. If you cant get it to work, try and locate the problem area. If
its a missing object, and you dont know what would work, email the list.
so, my workflow often comes out like this…Idea–miniaturized
I dont know if that helps or even makes sense.
> Experimental electronic. I need to be able to get to the point of
> creating the tool and THEN using it which is the fun part. I need the
> fun part.
Since I’m horrible at "getting to the fun", I too, would love to hear
others tips on the subject of productivity. Heres some tips that I’m
far from mastering.
Most importantly: When you think of something, don’t rush into it.
Ask yourself "What is my risk/reward ratio?" Are you going to spend
30 days on a program you’ll use twice or possibly hate when you
finish? Max is very easy to get carried away with.
At times, I’ve personally felt it’s choked off my actual creative
output. In fact I would be interested to hear other’s strategies and
thoughts as to "creative output" vs "max for max sake."
That being said, Its good to write scripts for things you find
yourself doing many times. I recently wrote myself a script which
takes all my parameters and applies a routing matrix to them. This
inherently provides midi CC control and preset infrastructure.
Basically, you write your algorithm, gui, apply this system, and your
Other time savers:
**in the extras menu, keep a patcher of common equations and patching
figures.(small groups of objects).
**if your bug has to do with unexpected behavior of an object, amend
the help file.
**indispensable abstraction 1: the old ascii midi keyboard trick for
entering midi info quickly.
**indispensable abstraction 2: takes note/velocity info, spits out
I’m no guru. this is just what I’ve found
Well, there might be your first problem. Not in sense that the kind of
music you want to make is bad, but in the sense that you really have to
define your goals before you start. "Experimental electronic" covers a
lot of ground. Do you want to sound like Aphex Twin, David Tutor, Les
Stuck, Matmos, Gregory Taylor, Barry Threw, Christopher Willits, or
Radiohead? Of course you want to sound like yourself, but you have to
have a voice in mind. Do you want to drop phat beats, or create subtle
Once you answer that question, then perhaps a good exercise would be to
create one piece with a Max patch. Not a magnum opus, but just
something you kind of like, and more importantly, that feels like its a
sound you can resonate with. After that, you think about what aspects
of that piece you liked, and try and generalize those features that
patch to play more similar pieces.
Start small and simple, and add features as you go. Don’t start out
trying to make a 10.16 surround patch that uses a comprehensive array of
effects and synthesis techniques and also makes julienne fries. If you
start out small, it will be conceptually easier to work your way through
This is the real challenge for me when using Max, how to make a patch
that is specialized enough to make the kind of music I want, and general
enough to support several different works.
Just some thoughts. But I find that the most helpful "max tip" is to
have a clear idea of what problem you want to solve before you go out
and try to solve it. You will get more ideas along the way that will
eventually lead you to a final product that is more original than what
you started out trying to do.
barry threw :: sound | (if you would see the stars clearly,
http://www.barrythrew.com | look hard at the surrounding darkness)
bthrew(at)gmail(dot)com | -Ooka Makoto
Quote: jmdarremont wrote on Tue, 09 May 2006 10:53
> IMHO pieces of software must be used for what they are good for.
> Considering what you wrote I think you need to try other softwares.
> Or even something else than software.
Jean-Michel, I humbly disagree. There was no indication that Max "isn’t right" for the OP, from what I read he is simply asking for a way to "work smarter" with it.
As with all music production my recommendation is: Compartmentalization (like Computo said) and – Deadlines! Start by setting up a really simple track and set out to build *one* killer sound for it. It needn’t be genius, the purpose is to start building, say, an soundFX generator, that can be saved and used in a larger compositional patch. Build up your library like this, and soon you’ll have a decent lib to use.
In the very short month I’ve used max(and I just got started on the msp stuff) I didn’t start work on anything unless I had a design in mind beforehand. Just some rough idea of what I wanted to acheive was all it took, and I now have quite a decent midi manipulation rig ready to go. Similarly I was discussing certain looping elements with a friend, and I was just about ready to try out the MSP side of things, so the first synth was a sine-wave FMed with its own looping delay: A very simple patch, must be around 20 objects or less, but the efficiency is there, since I had the idea to begin with.
Uhm. That came out a bit long-winded, but I hope I was clear regardless.
Wetterberg / Machinate
As for me, sometimes i much prefer to use Lisp for what i have to do with
CLCE… Lisp is very powerful and also
complitly different… An other way of thinking computer programming.
Csound is kind of hard for me to use… it’s a lot of code to write for
something i can do with max in few minutes but
once again, it a question of what is the most appropriated for your needs.
Lisp is really great for recurssive programming.
With onlu few lines of code, you can do very interesting things… also,
it’s pretty intuitive, i like that !
Max is great, i really love that environnement :-)
Not too hard but not simple also… which language is ? even Python takes
When I started using Max I quickly realized that it could be a very
productive and creative tool to me, much more so than writing sheet
music or using programs such as Finale and Vision (nowadays that would
be Cubase). But I also realized that I would have to learn the program
really well in order to use it. If not, my creative flow would always
get blocked by technical difficulties, and by the time I had figured out
what objects to use and how to do it, the idea would be gone.
I started out using Max before MSP or Nato/Jitter was around, so it was
only 50 tutorials to crack, not 150 as it is these days. I started
reading them thoroughly, stopping after each chapter to check out the
references and help files on the various objects introduced. By the time
I had gotten to tutorial 17 I had the idea for my first installation
piece based on Max. I still think of that as the first thing I did that
was artistically heading in the direction I wanted to go.
Later, when I got hold of MSP I felt that the MSP tutorials were good
for learning MSP itself, but I needed more knowledge on audio processing
in able to make any sense of it. So I bought "Computer music: synthesis,
composition and performance" by Dodge and Jerse. I really recommend
that book. I found it to have a good and structured progression, and
it is providing enough details that I was able to turn the techniques
discussed into Max patches. In comparison I have sometimes felt that
The Computer Music Tutorial by Curtis Roads lack the last few details
required in order to implement the techniques discussed myself. Still
that book is a must further down the road.
Musicians have to practice their instruments, rehearsing scales, etc in
order to develop technical skills that are a prerequisite for artistic
expression. A composition student have to study counterpoint,
harmonization, orchestration, etc. In the same way artists depending on
digital tools have to continuously explore and learn about their medium,
in particular so because the "instrument" we are playing is changing on
a more or less daily basis. Reading mailing lists, books, searching
information on the net, trying out stuff by patching, checking out 3rd
party objects, etc. are my etudes, and I have to do them on a daily basis.
If you are mainly into music, I would recommend spending as much time as
possible with the Max tutorials before moving on to MSP. MIDI might be
less exciting, but the important lessons about how to program, and how
to use Max in a good way is first and foremost revealed in the max
tutorials. The better you know them, the better you will be able to make
use of Jitter and MSP later on.
I have seen other approaching Max in a much less structured way than
myself and come up with really interesting results, so I am not claiming
that this is the only valid approach. But this is what have worked for
me so far. But I suppose I am a control freak…
well.. barry is right.
The first thing is thinking about your goals.
I never get lost in max becouse I allways know what I want and do a looot of trial and error, wich most of the times drives me much further where I did originally want to go, and this is so nice.
As a sound engineer I can say that the max and MSP manuals are not enough to fully master the software.
Often you’ll need a solid sound synthesis and music theory on your side to have good results.
Off course a complex patch could need months to be fully developed (see my gleetchlab software for example), you need patience and knowledge, then inspiration can take control.. :)
The original question was not so much about learning Max as learning to be efficient and productive when sitting down at the machine with an idea. My number one productivity tip for that is this: http://jamoma.org/
There is some obvious self-promotion here, but the part of the reason this exists is so that you can sit down and cobble some things together and get them working before you lose that creative momentum…
Hope it helps,
While I agree with you Timoty, I firmly think that knowledge is the key to expression in this environment.
Without knowing in depth most of the objects, it is quite difficult to go creative..
The danger (?) is, of course that Max itself becomes
the fun part, and you spend more & more time on it, at
the expense of actual music making.
To make music, you need serious time & space; to
doodle with Max, you don’t (once you’ve got past the
tutorial stage, of course).
I find that these days making music is usually
something I think I’ll get round to tomorrow, or ‘when
I have the time’ – which, with the day job & the
familly & walking the dog, ends up being just about
But I can always time find for a little Maxing,
iteratively nibbling at patches in between jobs at
work and in betweeen familly stuff at home.
What then happens, is that at some point in time, I’m
playing with a patch that has been around for many
months, if not years, and something starts to sound
good, so I hit the record button (thank Cycling for
the QuickRecord patch!), noodle around for a few mins,
and call that ‘making music’.
I have shedloads of such stuff on my hard-drive, that
one day might be edited, chopped & pasted to taste,
and burned onto CD’s – or not, as the case may be.
That’s Max for you (and I love it!)
At the risk of getting serious for a minute, I think
at least some of this has come about as a result of
being ill with ME/CFS for the last four years, which
means that a) I can’t sustain concentration/effort for
very long and b) I have had to learn not to be in such
a hurry to see results all the time.
There is a word, ‘pacing’, that you get to hear too
many times when you have this condition, which means
you just have to do a little of what you can, when you
can, and learn to be happy with that.
Actually, I think it’s not such a bad thing even for
I used to stay up all night hammering out stuff with
Cubase on my Atari ST, and great fun it was too, but I
think I would find that as tedious as it would be
Max, otoh, I can doodle with at my leisure, without
any particular target or agenda (apologies to those
who said you should have these!) and eventually come
up with something I can call music – bargain!
I was reading Forty Years of Fluxus by Ken Friedman yesterday:
He set up 12 core issues to define Fluxus. One of them is simplicity:
Simplicity, sometimes called parsimony, refers to the relationship of
truth and beauty. Another term for this concept is elegance. In
mathematics or science, an elegant idea is that idea which expresses the
fullest possible series of meanings in the most concentrated possible
statement. That is the idea of Occam’s Razor, a philosophical tool which
states that a theory that accounts for all aspects of a phenomenon with
the fewest possible terms will be more likely to be correct than a
theory that accounts for the same phenomenon using more (or more
complex) terms. From this perspective of philosophical modeling,
Copernicus’s model of the solar system is better than Ptolemy’s — must
be better — because it accounts for a fuller range of phenomena in
fewer terms. Parsimony, the use of frugal, essential means, is related
to that concept.
I found his text sharp and thought-provoking, and the thoughts on art
and technology particularly caught my attention.
On the other hand, I believe that programming must be the closest we
have gotten so far to the glass bead game. Making useless patches
sometimes seems one of the more sensible things to do. An Icelandic
artist once told me that his first Max patch as a student was nothing
but a collection of buttons, toggles, patch chords, metros and gates,
filling all of the screen, and not doing anything but blinking, toggling
and switching gates back and forth. I found that poetic.
> Experimental electronic. I need to be able to get to the point of
> creating the tool and THEN using it which is the fun part. I need the
> fun part.
Maybe that statement explains something:
For me the fun part starts immediately, I constantly play around while
changing the patch, I can’t imagine to patch without playing around and
tweaking parameters, listening to the results, get inspired by what I am
missing, adding what I am missing, never switch off audio….
On the other hand its never ready, the creation process is not really
turning into a ready tool, which I’d then use and don’t touch anymore…
Even on stage I might unlock the patch and add what I am missing…
Maybe instead of having two stages, turn it into a single one.
Patching is so much fun… it can’t be more experimental than that.
By the way "experimental" is not a style, its an attitude.
   
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I totally agree. Maxing is fun as making music with it…
I program max patches and then distribute them as standalones.
a: way easier than using C (though probably roughly as easy as using
CSound or SuperCollider).
b: way harder than using reaktor and ripping ideas off of the user
Guess what, way more people listen to artists who use my patches than
listen to my music. That makes sense, I’ve been programming for 8
years and making music for about 3. I have formal training in
computer science and very scant knowledge of music. I’m getting there
I hear sounds my patches make in tunes by people I respect in new
songs on a weekly basis now, and honestly that’s as good to me as
actually making the music. More people are impressed with the tools I
produce than with my music… cest la vie.
My patches all suck, but what they all have in common is: they make a
sound that’s hard to make (if at all possible) any other way, and they
have a record button. The thing I have realized over and over again
is that they probably need to have tempo sync’ing and some way to
chain vst’s or AU’s into the signal path. The thing is that the
record button lets me do this in a manual fashion, and most
importantly it forces me to quit max and fire up Logic or Peak. Then
I chop and mangle and sequence and add effects and bounce, rinse and
My next step is to master making pluggos, but to tell you the truth I
think I might actually just start programming audio units in C.
Coding in Max won’t get you hired, eventually you have to have done
something really impressive in C / C++. It sucks, but it’s true.
Sort of paradoxical that using a tool that makes you more productive
also makes you easier to emulate, witness the 303 and the massive
number of Acid House songs that sound excellent and similar.
I make music too, while doing so I try to use my own stuff and
critically analyze just how easily it fits into my workflow. If
there’s something tedious about my workflow, or I get blocked then I
go back to the Maxing / programming. You simply cannot know how
useful a tool actually is to a musician without trying to use the tool
as a musician.
My advice: keep with it, and steal as many good ideas as possible.
Find stuff that makes you go "woah" and then create slight variations.
Think about modularity, and think about inter-relating controls, and
think about tempo synching. When you finally do make something
awesome, cannibalize that shit like crazy. Repeating yourself is fine
as long as it sounds good.
Like was said previously… record the stuff you make into a form that
you can’t change (like an aif or wav), incorporate that stuff into
Art is frozen imperfection.
Mark Pauley wrote:
> Art is frozen imperfection.
Thats why the music "buisiness" (selling recording) is that cold…
fortunately there is art, which is not frozen at all, but you need to go
to a concert/performance to hear it, after that only memory remains…
>Coding in Max won’t get you hired, eventually you have to have done
>something really impressive in C / C++. It sucks, but it’s true.
The difficulty with making claims about truth
is that what appears "true" to you may, in fact,
be a personal or a local phenomenon. It would
appear [that is, within my circle of "truth"]
that, in some circles, knowing Max is becoming
somewhat of a credential. I was a bit surprised
at this, but pleased.
Also, as long as some aesthetic positions cling
to the notion that Real Artists with Really Good
Ideas shouldn’t have to learn to program [ah, to
stand downwind of the bloated corpse of Romanticism
early in the morning....], the job opportunities
also ah… blossom.
This is not to discourage you from doing something
really impressive in C or C++, of course.
Okay, okay I’ll backup and say that _I_ haven’t found a job building
Max/MSP patches, but then I know plenty of CS grads that have had no
luck getting jobs of any type. As always, I suppose it’s what you
have done that counts, not what languages you know. I’m just saying
that limiting your interface to just Max may not be so good for you
regardless of how hard Max rawks.
I do understand that there are many places (asphodel studios in SF for
example) that have been known to contract out for them.
In other news, does anyone in San Francisco know of (or want to start)
a Max/MSP/Jitter study group? I would love to meet the local Maxers
on like a bi-weekly or something. I know that it’s fun to noodle
alone, but think of the bloopy bleeps that could come out an awesome
local user group!